Category Archives: biographical

LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

life-after-life-by-kate-atkinson

A Christmas present from the friend who introduced me to Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series – CASE HISTORIES, ONE GOOD TURN, WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS, and STARTED EARLY TOOK MY DOG. Like that friendship, Atkinson’s books just seem to get better and better and LIFE AFTER LIFE is no exception.

Ursula Todd, born February 11th 1910, lives different versions of her life. In one she falls from a window as a child, in another she lives. In one rendition she succumbs to the Spanish flu brought home by the family’s maid, in another she pushes the maid down the stairs to prevent a trip into London for the end of the First World War celebrations and her coming into contact the with flu. One teenage Ursula is raped by an arrogant American friend of her brother’s named Howie and dies following an abortion. An alternative  survives the abortion but  goes on to marry a mild mannered man who turns out to be a bully that beats her to death. In another life she simply enjoys a delicious innocent kiss with Howie and in a further version again she avoids him completely and instead encounters a neighbour’s son upon whom she is rather sweet. She dies in a Nazi bombing raid on London and on another occasion is part the rescue team pulling bodies out of the same rubble. In some narratives she ends up in Germany, and in some of those is friends with Eva Braun. At times, Ursula seems aware of the points at which her lives diverge, whilst deja vu and thinking one is seeing ghosts take on new meaning in this context. Some versions of herself are clearly less attuned to what’s going on, “We only have one [life] after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.” But in one thread she actively chooses to die and follow a particular path that sees her attempt to stop her treasured younger brother, Teddy, being shot down from his plane with an assassination attempt on Hitler that she hopes will avert the whole Second World War.

Amidst all this change, some things remain constant. The housekeeper Mrs Glover’s piccalilli; the haven that is her childhood home, Fox Corner; being her father Hugh’s favourite child and nicknamed Little Bear; the wallpaper on the stairs, trips to the seaside and, in this very English of novels, the weather. The essence of each characters remains true too, from Ursula’s incorrigible aunt Izzie’s flightiness to her older brother Maurice’s pomposity. History is haphazard, and whilst its remembering is important for the way it shapes our lives, who we are and what we choose to do seems far more interesting and impactful in Atkinson’s hands.

When I first began reading the book, I feared that the groundhog day element of it would prove tedious but nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst details and people recur, the stories are sufficiently different at each telling to captivate anew. And, of course, there’s the humour which Atkinson does so well. Ursula’s mother, Sylvie has the best one liners. From bemoaning the messiness of childbirth and asserting that if she’d been in charge of designing the human race she’d have opted for “a well fitting hatch somewhere modest for escape”, to declaring drily and with wonderful timing “sometimes…one can mistake gratitude for love.” When she attends a Third Reich rally with her daughter, Sylvie has little to say other than that the colours of the flag and banner bedecked street are rather dull “as though she were considering asking the national Socialists to decorate her living room.” Somehow this lightness helps ground what could be the rather fanciful notion at the heart of the novel in a reality that is gritty, banal and full of magic.  Atkinson’s ability to capture time and place like few others writers plays a similar role – from velvet hair ribbons to the smell of boiled cabbage, each detail is perfectly chosen to ground her novel and make it sing.

Funny, sad, unusual, startling and as comfortable as a well worn pair of pjyamas this is the kind of writing, story telling and characterisation that I love, especially on a cold winter night, curled up on the sofa. Roll on the sequel,…A GOD IN RUINS.

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SWEET CARESS by William Boyd

sweet caress by william boyd

Moving with accomplished ease between the 1970’s and flashbacks to her earlier life, this novel is told via the journals of its main protagonist, Amory Clay. A daring and alluring war photographer she falls into history and into relationships with an irresistible spirit, and Boyd has created a character that’s one of the most rounded and interesting I’ve encountered in a novel for some time. From the seminal attempted suicide of her father by way of driving the car bearing himself and his daughter into a lake, to the more widely defining events of the 2nd world war and the war in Vietnam, Amory rarely experiences a dull moment. The pages are interspersed with photos documenting her life and enriched with a smattering of real life characters, including Diane Arbus and Martha Gellhorn. It’s an intimate and intelligent portrait of one hell of a woman and of different points in time.

However, for all that, I was left slightly dissatisfied by SWEET CARESS because I don’t feel it works as something whole and complete. Boyd has so successfully recreated the sense of a memoir as a collection of episodes that inevitably make up a life, that he’s missed out on providing the kind of unifying coherence most lives lack – we don’t tend towards tidy existences that fall naturally into chapters or linear narratives – but which I instinctively seek out from a novel.

In Amory Clay, Boyd has created a character more real than fiction and it’s ironic that this kind of backfires. It’s a small criticism, and didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the book, but it did mean that I was wondering where SWEET CARESS was going much of the time and still don’t know, despite having read to the end. I am glad I stayed with it, nonetheless, and it gave me an interesting sense of perspective to be reading a book about tumultuous times during the political storms of the EU referendum aftermath – both from a historical stance and with an eye to how individuals can choose to navigate the chaos that is erupting around us.

 

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LIVES OF GIRLS AND WOMEN by Alice Munro

lives of girls and women by alice munro

I read the first few chapters of this book months ago but couldn’t really get into it. I was determined to try again and this time I did find myself drawn in much more. But I also found large sections of it didn’t hold my interest and, on finishing it, I am left feeling rather untouched by the experience. It’s a shame because I desperately wanted to love it, and I know Munro’s writing is lovely, but something is definitely lacking here. Partly to blame, I think is that it felt much more like a series of connected short stories than a coherent novel.

LIVES OF GIRLS AND WOMEN is a coming of age story that centres around Del Jordan, resident of the small rural Canadian town of Jubilee, daughter of a silver fox pelt farmer and an encyclopedia saleswoman. As she navigates her way through adolescence in the 1940s, Del seeks to balance the expectations of her mother, who wants her to use her brain and make something of herself, with those of Jubilee, which generally frowns on standing out from the crowd for your achievements, and those of her peers, who are mainly just interested in sex, whether that’s talking about it, having it or negotiating how to have it and remain respectable. Through all of this Del must find out what she wants, which we learn some way in, is to be like a man: “able to go out and take on all kinds of experiences and shuck of what they didn’t want and come back proud”. This, Del determines is far preferable to the life of a woman, which she observes as being “damageable” and calling for “a certain amount of carefulness and solemn fuss and self protection.”

I might have enjoyed it more, if this decision prompted some kind of plot or action. It didn’t. It just meant she took a few risks like going to a Baptist revival and having sex before marriage, like every other girl in town. That’s  part of the problem, I think – nothing much happens. This is a book of emotional landscapes and every day minutiae, which is all very well but not for over 300 pages and not without anything much else as relief.

To be fair, there’s some great characters – Del’s mother in particular, a self styled progressive, who preaches the importance of contraception but fails to even talk to her daughter about getting fitted with a diaphragm. Munro delivers some brilliant one liners too, my favourite being “”Love is not for the underpilated”.  And she’s tackling an important subject too, with some interesting observations about the changing role of women and the gap between what society will acknowledge and the reality that lies beneath. But other writers do all this and grab my attention too. Munro didn’t and, for that reason, whilst I am glad I gave it another go, this is not a book I’ll be in a hurry to read again or recommend.

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THE DANISH GIRL by David Ebershoff

the danish girl by david ebershoff

As is generally the case, I wanted to read this novel before going to watch its much acclaimed film adaptation. I’ve not yet watched it on the big screen but I suspect the film will be fascinating and, as is generally NOT the case in my experience, may well be better than the book. Not that the book is bad – far from it – but I think the main character’s transition from a man into a woman will be all the more powerful for the visual perspective gained by the film. Ebershoff’s novel conveys his protagonist’s emotional and psychological state of mind with sensitivity and great insight, but I want to see the woman he becomes, not least because external transformation is so closely tied up with the character’s internal identity.

Inspired by a true story, the character in question is actually a Danish painter, Einar Wegener, who becomes Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery. What I found most interesting about the book though is less its account of groundbreaking surgery and Lili’s experiences, and more Ebershoff’s intimate portrait of an unconventional marriage – one in which love really does mean setting your partner free. It’s Einar’s wife, Greta, who first encourages him to dress as a woman, for one of her paintings, and Greta who finds a doctor who will operate on her husband. Although her character is less developed than that of Einar and Lili, Greta’s story was actually what held my attention the most and I’m interested to see whether this is the case in the film too.

The cast of the novel is small and there’s something very contained and delicate about it – much like Lili herself. It explores incredibly complex issues, including the way in which Lili and Einar are discrete identities rather than different facets of one person, but doesn’t labour them or seem to set out to make any kind of statement. Ebershoff gives us the mechanics – Lili putting avocado stones in the cups of her camisole, for example, as well as the surgical details of her reassignment – and he gives us detail, including the most exquisite descriptions of Lili’s clothes, and of the “black bread and smoked salmon sprinkled with dill” that she eats for breakfast. The language is often very deliberate and artistic – words are as carefully chosen as the garments, make up and jewellery Lili uses to create the self she presents to the world. The whole is a thing of beauty that allows us to see the pain beneath it – Ebershoff doesn’t shrink away from Einar’s agony, both physical and emotional, nor from the exhaustion caused” by the world failing to know who he was”.

A deeply touching and intelligent book and I dearly hope the film lives up to my expectations.

 

 

 

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WONDER by RJ Palacio

wonder by rj palacio

This is a very special book and came recommended by a very special friend. It’s the story of a year in the life of Auggie, a ten year old who is about to start middle school. Auggie has a sister, Via, a dog named Daisy, a mild Star Wars obsession and his favourite time of the year is Halloween. He also has a cleft palate and suffers from mandibulofacial dysostosis, which means his face is severely deformed. “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse” he warns us.

Auggie is trying his utmost not to be defined by his face and the boy we meet in this story is just like any other of his age in so many ways. It’s other people who are the problem, especially those determined to label him a freak or special needs. Having never been to school because of all the surgery he has needed, starting at Beecher Prep is tough enough, never mind the enormous battle he faces trying to overcome people’s reactions to, and prejudices about, his face. As the school year unfolds, Auggie struggles to fit in and it seems he will always be the boy others avoid and stare at.

Palacio tells the story through various different narrators, including Via and two of the children who Auggie makes friends with at school, Jack and Summer. She’s captured their different voices and perspectives beautifully, and relies on a simplicity that suggests a writer confident in her own skills. WONDER explores both what it’s like to be different and how we react to difference, whether with fear, caution, or open mindedness. Palacio also goes out of her way to contrast Auggie’s life with that of some other other children in the book, who might not be suffering because of they way they look but have other challenges going on. She’s created a hugely loving, warm and accepting family for Auggie, who embrace him for who he is and are deeply proud of his bravery. But some of his peers are not so lucky and Auggie’s story makes us really think about what’s important.

There’s a clear moral to the book – it’s this, more than anything else, that marks it out as written for children – and a message that runs throughout: “always try to be a little kinder than necessary.” But Palacio is also telling us that what we do with our lives matters, even if our lives just revolve around going to school each day. That we shape the world by the way we treat others, the example we set and the good we try to do. It’s not a new idea but it’s one that definitely bears repeating. Both heartrendingly sad and enormously uplifting, WONDER is the kind of the book that enriches your life and stays with you way beyond the last page has been turned.  Read, enjoy and remember: neither judge a book by its cover nor a person by their face.

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NOT THAT KIND OF GIRL by Lena Dunham

not that kind of girl by lena dunham

I’ve yet to watch GIRLS but have found Lena Dunham’s various pieces of journalism clever, witty and salient so was hoping for more of the same from this book, which is essentially a collection of essays about her experiences of being a young woman. The subject matter is more personal than political but Dunham’s trade mark honesty and humour, as well as her enormous writing talent, are unmistakeable and whilst there’s less up front politics than I was hoping for, there’s plenty just beneath the surface of some of the stories.

Dunham, it is fair to say, comes across as self obsessed and overly keen on sharing, but I guess that’s the point – no one who wasn’t would want to describe her first sexual encounters, teenage food diaries and therapy history in such detail. It’s this which makes her appeal to her main target audience, especially as it goes hand in hand with a refreshing willingness to openly acknowledge these traits as her bread and butter and her main motivation in life. She may well be the spoiled product of a very particular liberal, middle class, eccentric New York upbringing, but that’s hardly her fault, and the point of the essays is that her feelings, reactions and experiences have a commonality that transcends Dunham’s own context.

Personally, I think Caitlin Moran does this style of literature far better (and far funnier) but the more of these voices out there the better – especially for the young girls and women  reading them.

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PERFUME – THE STORY OF A MURDERER by Patrick Suskind

perfume - the story of a murdered by patrick suskind

Jean- Baptiste Grenouille is born into abject poverty on a rubbish tip. So begins a life of rejection and mistreatment, made bearable only by a unique gift: a most advanced and sensitive sense of smell. As a child Grenouille roams the nightime streets of 18th century Paris collecting scents to store away in his memory – everything from the smell of the beetles that live in decaying leaf mould, to the scent of the distant sea, carried into the city on the gentlest of breezes. It’s a gift that comes with a price. Grenouille himself has no scent, a fate which makes those around him uneasy and plays no small part in him growing up friendless, unloved and either ignored or treated with suspicion.

As he enters adulthood, Grenouille’s talent sees him grow arrogant and, in turn, full of loathing for his fellow human beings. One evening his nose draws him to the home of a young woman and, driven by desire to posses her intoxicating scent, murders her in an instant. The moment is a turning point – Grenouille becomes increasingly obsessed by collecting and making scents, working first as a perfumer and then leaving Paris for the fabled town of Grasse, in search of new skills that will allow him to better distill and create the scents of which he dreams.

Grasse is home to another woman whose scent Grenouille desires but this time he is more skilled, more determined and more cunning. He plans to capture it for eternity, so he can enjoy whenever he wants, and to set it off, as one would a fine diamond, in setting of other gems. The resulting killing spree puts every young woman in town in mortal danger. Now an expert at observing the impact different scents have on others, Grenouille uses his skills to create scents that he wears himself, and which in turn allow him to exercise control or disappear whenever the mood – or his plans – require. As the story plays out, and he comes closer and closer to what his heart desires, Grenouille’s misanthropy reaches fever pitch too – will fulfilling his dreams make him happy or will happiness always elude him?

Suskind is a very clever writer and the idea behind PERFUME is executed with style and incredible attention to detail. I was yearning to smell what Grenouille was smelling and utterly captivated by the descriptions of scent that give this book a force and vibrancy that’s impossible to ignore. Grenouille himself is a horribly fascinating protagnist, repulsive and attractive all at once, as well rounded as the scent of the ripest Parisian he sniffs.  Wickedness and depravity personified, he’s gratuitously selfish and yet is prevented from descending into a cartoon villain thanks to Suskin’s deft hand.

 

The only bit of the book I didn’t really enjoy is an interlude when Grenouille is travelling between Paris and Grasse and spends a prolonged period of time living as a hermit in a cave, sustained mainly by the smells of nature that surround him and hallucinatory dreams in which he is the supreme ruler of his own kingdom. As an escape from the human being he detests, it’s perfect, and as a literary technique it allows Suskind to really develop Grenouille into the man who can murder time and again in cold blood. However, I found that it all dragged on a bit too long and was a distraction from the action and ingenuity that utterly absorbed me for the rest of the novel.

Otherwise, there are many remarkable things to recommend about this book. As a study of death and decay, of twisted love and desire, it’s dark, dangerous and as all consuming as the addictive scents Grenouille goes to such lengths to make his own.

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